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Tablet - December 2011
The Chinese Taoist Master enters the room from one door as we are led in through another. We walk towards the large table in the centre of the room laden with pastries, cookies, fruit and mysteries. Master Wei is slightly built and also spare in speech; but he has quick observant eyes and a confident yet courteous reticence.
He wears a yellow Chinese shirt harmonizing with the bright reds and yellows around the room. If he is as centred as he seems he would quickly defuse an agitated situation and restore peace and clarity simply by his presence.
Our conversation takes place through an excellent translator, also ordained, in the largest Taoist temple of the city. Unlike most religious leaders the Master is genuinely curious about what other religious practitioners believe and do. He asks about my Christian beliefs and practices. It is not always easy to contextualize the answers. I see, for example, that he struggles to understand that not all monks are priests and what the general distinction is. But I think the terms themselves are hard to translate even if you understand them.
Having missed lunch, the pastries and fruit occupy a certain volume of my available memory. As no one is touching them I assume it is not the right moment to select from them but I hope the protocol will allow it before long. As the conversation gathers momentum and we both realise that we are sincerely interested in learning more about each other I think less of my stomach and more of what we are trying to share. It is an odd experience that I find in inter-religious dialogue and in other aspects of life, too, that the closer you get the further away you are. At one focal point the similarities pile up to build a sense of deep friendship; but in another perspective, when you look around, you see great plains of difference. The sense of unity seems like an oasis in a desert, rich in its own beauties, of incompatibilities.
When we talk about what meditation means to the Taoist he says it has two senses. The movement meditation exemplified by Tai Chi is the most common and easily taught. It is understood as leading to better health and personal balance both in body and mind but ‘health’ clearly means more than most westerners trying to de-stress and lower their cholesterol might assume. It is very close to our idea of holiness. The other kind of meditation – stillness – is not widely taught, he says, and is in fact restricted to the master-disciple relationship and governed by strict rules of confidentiality. I ask why and, he says, in order to protect the teachings from becoming abused by people who are seeking personal gain.
I think he is talking about particular, subtle mental powers or psychic experiences which exert a great fascination on the Asian (and New Age) mind and can become ends in themselves. I tell him that Christians lack a developed spirituality of the body such as the East possesses in yoga or tai chi but that we see meditation as more accessible to ordinary people and even children. This is clearly a big difference. However he does not evade it but asks questions about how and what we teach and the responses we find. He looks surprised and pleased at what he is discovering.
Then he asks what we believe about the next life and I do my best to explain, adding that actually of course nobody knows for sure - at which he laughs and the two streams of consciousness carrying these two great traditions, or carried by them, flow together for a moment in a liberating sense of common human weakness and ignorance. It is always refreshing to admit what you don’t know after you have said what you believe.
I should add that this wonderful conversation took place amid the most deafening noise of a jackhammer operating ruthlessly right outside the room. At first I assumed we would have to find another room but no one else seemed to mind so I thought I was being over-sensitive. (Later this proved not to be true but it was not the visitor’s place to allude to this). There were brief intervals of delicious silence when we could hear each other clearly and the translator did not have to ask us to repeat so much. But then the racket would start again.
Nevertheless as the conversation rose to its own heights I realized that I was tuning out the ambient noise. We were in fact not just talking but practicing the art of meditation – attention turned towards the centre and away from all peripheral distraction, whether noise or food. The fruits of this practice enriched us both through the wisdom and courtesy it was teaching us.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)